Just a day after Craig Fulton cited India's fitness levels as the cause of a superb second-half performance against Malaysia, his team turned in a turgid final quarter performance against Korea but held on to win 3-2 and book their place in the semifinals of the Asian Champions Trophy.
"We had to battle," Fulton told ESPN after the game. "But that's why it's important to score goals when you're playing well. We were 3-1 up, which gave us some room."
India's fourth-quarter performance was surprising and much against the run of play, given how the first 45 minutes of the game had gone. They were sharp in winning balls back, creative in attack, and by necessity, patient against a Korean side that defended deep in their half.
"They play so low. Their plan is almost to lure us high, and then win the ball with space for them to play their game," Fulton assessed.
India didn't fall for that trap in the first three quarters, keeping the ball excellently and creating numerous opportunities. Nilakanta Sharma gave India an early lead after an excellent dribble and cut-back by Sukhjeet Singh from the byline. Even though India were pegged back by a field goal that Krishan Pathak wouldn't like to see again, they retained their attacking threat and retook the lead in the second quarter through a low Harmanpreet Singh dragflick. Mandeep Singh scored the pick of the goals on the night with a stunning low reverse hit from the right that thudded into the board.
Skipper Harmanpreet had the opportunity to put India 4-1 up with a penalty stroke but saw his take saved by Korean goalkeeper Kim Jaehyon. Fulton pointed that out as the moment which gave Korea belief and turned the momentum of the game.
From there on, it was all Korea, but India didn't help themselves either. Passes stopped finding their intended targets, simple balls weren't being trapped and India were showing signs of a jaded side. They conceded nine penalty corners in the fourth quarter, but conceded only one goal from them, largely thanks to some excellent first-rushing by Amit Rohidas and Manpreet Singh, who took some fierce blows but managed to keep India's lead intact.
Manpreet later said that India's first rushers have a simple way of functioning. "We ensure we cover the left side so that the goalkeeper has enough space to make a save on the right."
The veteran midfielder also lamented India's performance in the fourth quarter, saying that they made some basic errors which could've been avoided. "They had nothing to lose, so they came hard at us in the fourth quarter. We played three very good quarters, but made mistakes in the fourth, which is what we will now work on," he said.
Fulton though was pleased to see his side come through a tough fight. "They had the momentum, took their keeper off, and came at us, but we fought, which is good. We are not always going to have games go our way," the Indian coach said.
After two convincing wins and a draw, a battling win like this one has allowed Fulton to see another facet of his side before the Asian Games, and it could well be one they need as they look to book their tickets to Paris 2024 next month.